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Great Schools


WE KNOW THE STRUGGLES high school students encounter on the road to college. There are the trials of test-taking, dealing with the temptation to cheat and the frustration of matching achievements to specific requirements.


Those same challenges, ironically, are faced by high school administrators and educators. For San Diego high schools, making the grade has never been more complicated. Test results measure academic performance, not the quality of a school or the efforts of its teachers. Parent involvement and programs that address the needs of a diverse student population also contribute to a school’s success. But how do you quantify that?

That said, we set out to find great high schools in our region. We found eight San Diego public schools that made our “800 Club.” All meet the following criteria: They serve grades nine through 12; have a minimum of 1,000 students; are accredited by the Western Association of Schools & Colleges; and have an Academic Performance Index (API) base score of at least 800 (out of 1,000) and a statewide rank of 10, the maximum.

The annual API—developed as part of California’s 1999 Public Schools Accountability Act (see the “What Is API?” sidebar on page 93)—measures school performance and improvement by a number of factors, including ethnic diversity, test proficiency and enrollment. The state wants 800 to be the goal of all schools.

At the beginning of the year, the state calculates test scores and determines the base API, then sets an annual growth target. There is tremendous pressure for schools to improve ratings and test scores. Those that repeatedly fall short risk sanctions and even closure.

“The API is a great tool and the most comprehensive, because it measures grade-by-grade, subjectby- subject performance on the California Standards Tests, which we as a state have agreed is what kids need to know,” says Jim Esterbrooks, public information officer for the San Diego County Office of Education. “But it’s very tricky to rely on any one method. It’s like naming the greatest rockand- roll band of all time. It’s not just about data and statistics— and judging a school’s merit is not an exact science.”

To most fairly attempt to measure our schools, San Diego Magazine chose to use API—in particular because it is a state benchmark. We are aware that no one system of measurement can address all of the issues, and that any attempt will invite controversy. Consider the nationally renowned Gary & Jeri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High charter school in Point Loma, which did not make Newsweek’s list. Yet more than 75 percent of its students scored above the U.S. national average in standardized tests. The school’s philosophy favors project-based learning over AP tests. Statewide, High Tech High received an API base score of 792, with 335 students tested. Many would call that a success.

We are teaching students to think deeply about content and then do something with their knowledge, not just race through a textbook,” says High Tech High director Ben Daley. “Ultimately, we think the number-one problem in American high schools is lack of student engagement. This is because what we teach in schools is frankly not very relevant to students and their lives. Admissions policies, attrition data and the percent of students who are going to college would be a more interesting way to look at ‘the best schools.’

Daley makes a valid point. Many of the best teachers fight what some would call a losing battle every day. Yet they still strive to engage high school students and inspire them to reach their educational goals. So, in addition to our 800 Club, we added “honorable mention” (where you’ll find High Tech High) and “outstanding charter schools” lists.

The 800 Club

Coronado High School

Coronado Unified School District
650 D Avenue, Coronado 
Principal: David Lorden
Most current enrollment: 1,050
Students tested: 675
2005 API base score: 838
Coronado High is a California Distinguished School, a National Blue Ribbon School and a New American High School. To become the latter, administrators had to submit documentation that demonstrated increases in student achievement and enrollment at post-secondary institutions, increases in student attendance and reductions in student dropout rates.

The Coronado School of the Arts, located on campus, is a public schoolwithin- a-school that focuses on music, dance, theater and visual arts.

“Our teachers invest in our students through building relationships and teaching rigorous core content standards,” says principal David Lorden. “Coronado High School teachers are willing to sacrifice their lunch, before-school and after-school time to help any student succeed.


La Jolla High School

San Diego Unified School District
750 Nautilus Street, La Jolla
Principal: Dana Shelburne
Most current enrollment: 1,656
Students tested: 1,191
2005 API base score: 834
A California Distinguished School and an AVID School of Distinction, La Jolla High prides itself on providing programs and resources that promote intellectual and emotional development in a multicultural setting. About 40 percent of the students are nonresidential, and 16 percent are from VEEP, a program designed to expand educational outreach to San Diego High and Hoover High areas.

More than 80 percent of seniors qualified for the CSU or UC systems this year, and the overall AP pass rate was 83 percent. Many staff members are AP teachers, and more than 70 percent hold a master’s degree or higher. There are more than 50 extracurricular clubs oriented to academics, the arts, cultural heritage, athletics, careers and services.

“We wish to continue to present academic challenges to all students,” says principal Dana Shelburne, “so they can achieve their full potential.

Rancho Bernardo High School

Poway Unified School District
13010 Paseo Lucido, Rancho Bernardo
Principal: Jeff King
Most current enrollment: 2,822
Students tested: 2,071
2005 API base score: 832
Half of RBHS seniors qualified for CSU or UC admission this year. The school offers 15 AP classes, with a total of 54 individual class sections.

Math teacher Keith Koelzer was named a county Teacher of the Year. In January, the school broke ground on a $1.6 million music building, a project made possible by the Rancho Bernardo High School Music Boosters. The Rancho Bernardo Royal Regiment marching band plays regularly in regional field show tournaments, and its 50-member color guard performs throughout the United States after marching season.

“We continually work on issues such as aligning our curriculum to California Standards Tests and designing specific intervention strategies for students who struggle,” says principal Jeff King. “But the core of our efforts focuses on preparing our students to successfully complete college if they choose to do so.

Poway High School

Poway Unified School District
15500 Espola Road, Poway
Principal: Scott Fisher
Most current enrollment: 3,048
Students tested: 2,178
2005 API base score: 829
Nearly half of the school’s teachers have master’s degrees, and five are nationally board certified. Poway is both a California Distinguished School and National Blue Ribbon School.

The school was also selected as one of 33 in the nation to receive a $1,000 Grammy Signature Award for excellence in music education. Poway sporting teams have just earned their 100th CIF team title, and more than half the school participates in at least one sport.

Campus programs are designed to make students feel connected. Link Crew, for example, pairs upperclassmen with a group of freshmen, two days before school starts. This gives incoming students a link, to help them achieve—socially and academically.

Principal Scott Fisher says 54.6 percent of students have met the A-G requirements, a program of college preparatory courses approved by the UC and CS systems.

Mount Carmel High School

Poway Unified School District
9550 Carmel Mountain Road, San Diego
Principal: Tom McCoy
Most current enrollment: 2,111
Students tested: 1,447
2005 API base score: 824
Mount Carmel High School opened in 1975 and is undergoing a major renovation. It’s the most diverse campus in the district, with a student body estimated to be 56 percent Caucasian, 15 percent Filipino, 13 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent African-American.

More than 60 percent of teachers have master’s degrees or higher, and about 60 percent of students complete A-G courses, which qualify them for UC and CSU admission. All 450 students in the class of 2006 passed both portions of the California Exit Exam.

A great source of pride is the school’s marching band. Led by Warren Torns and Garry McPherson, the Marching Sundevils performed in the 2006 Tournament of Roses Parade, as well as in 1984 and 2000.

Torrey Pines High School

San Dieguito Union High School District
3710 Del Mar Heights Road, Carmel Valley
Principal: Rick Schmitt
Most current enrollment: 3,177
Students tested: 2,374
2005 API base score: 821

Named a National Blue Ribbon and California Distinguished High School, Torrey Pines High is known for academic achievement and parent involvement. More than half of the teaching staff has earned master’s degrees or better.

The school’s foundation raises $2 million to $3 million per year to support academic, athletic and art programs. Principal Rick Schmitt says Torrey Pines has won more CIF championships than any other school in San Diego history— more than 120 titles since 1976.

Last year, seniors averaged 1200 on the SAT; 24 AP classes are offered. The school’s acting ensemble, the TP Players, has been awarded the opportunity to perform at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, this summer.

“The goal for the future,” says principal Rick Schmitt, “includes helping special-education and English [as a second] language learners have more success.”

San Dieguito Academy

San Dieguito Union High School District
800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas
Principal: Barbara Gauthier
Most current enrollment: 1,430
Students tested: 1,037
2005 API base score: 816

A modernization has resulted in new student bathrooms and walkways. In the fall, a new media center will be completed.

The Career Pathways program enables students to pursue a full-time academic schedule while exploring career options. Block scheduling allows students to take a variety of electives along with core courses.

“We have done research and feel we need to improve our instructional activities so they require our students to take information, synthesize it and make a practical application of it,” says principal Barbara Gauthier. “We will continue to establish connections with our community so students can see the relevancy of their learning firsthand.”

Westview High SchoolWestview High School

Poway Unified School District
13500 Camino del Sur, Poway
Principal: Jerry Leininger
Most current enrollment: 2,259
Students tested: 1,525
2005 API base score: 809

The newest Poway school opened in 2002 with ninth and 10th graders only.

More than half of the faculty has earned advanced degrees. The school offers AP and honors programs. Principal Jerry Leininger says 52.9 percent of seniors were accepted into a four-year college or university, and 33.4 percent were accepted into a two-year college.

Students get Wolverine Time, a 28-minute free period twice a week that gives them the opportunity to contact teachers or get tutoring during the school day.

Westview was recognized by the California PTSA with two awards for teacher/staff involvement and as an “outstanding unit.” Westview has more than 1,600 members in the PTSA, the greatest number for any school in San Diego, despite its enrollment being twothirds of that for some of the larger schools in the county.

“This year we administered more than 1,300 AP exams, and more than 300 of those were in calculus,” says retiring principal Leininger.


A CHARTER SCHOOL is a public school funded by the state, but it has its own board of directors and control of curriculum, budget and personnel. Charter schools are expected to raise student achievement; if one doesn’t meet performance goals, the charter may be revoked.

The objective of a charter school is to stimulate competition in the educational market and to provide students within the public school system with better learning opportunities.

Many San Diego charter schools develop specialized programs and target minority and/or underprivileged students. At press time, there were 68 operating charter schools in San Diego. An existing public school board typically authorizes the goals and operating procedures, which are specified in an agreement between the board and the organizers.

The popularity of charter schools is on the rise, especially in urban areas. In his proposed 2006-07 budget, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested $1 billion in funding for charter schools.

Here are a pair of outstanding examples of local charter schools.

Preuss School UCSD

9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla
Principal: Doris Alvarez
Current enrollment: 770 (grades 6-12)
Students tested: 674
2005 API base score: 861

To be eligible for enrollment at Preuss (rhymes with choice) School, students must come from low-income families, and neither parent may be a college or university graduate. Small class size, an extended school year and a longer school day help students succeed. Students are chosen for admission by lottery.

River Valley Charter School

97071/2 Marilla Drive, Lakeside
Principal: Bill Wellhouse
Current enrollment: 175 (grades seven-12)
Students tested: 131
2005 API base score: 866

Principal Wellhouse attributes the school’s success to the personal attention a small school (average class size: 15) can give students. Wellhouse also brought in outside consultants to instruct teachers on how to organize and align courses to California standards. The school encourages students to take AP courses online and offers one AP course on-site. About half of student time is instructional study and half is independent study, much like a community college.


Honorable Mention

These schools didn’t make the 800 Club but are noteworthy nonetheless.

ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOLS offer independent-study programs that allow students to have careers while attending classes. Standouts with 800-plus API base scores include Seaside Academy in Carlsbad, where snowboarding champion Shaun White was schooled, and San Diego’s Mount Everest Academy, attended by tennis player Camelia Todorova and skateboarder Annie Sullivan. Canyon Crest High School in the San Dieguito Union High School District was established in 2004 and includes just freshman and sophomore classes but will add a class every year. The school earned an API base score of 842 and focuses on technology and the arts at an expansive, state-of-the art facility.

Escondido Charter School opened in 1996. It was built from the ground up (most charter schools occupy an existing building), serves about 1,000 students in grades nine-12 and achieved an API base score of 755.

Gary & Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High in Point Loma (API Base Score 792) received the first statewide charter approved by the California Board of Education in January, which means it can replicate its vision throughout the state. High Tech High has received financial support from Gary Jacobs, son of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, and from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has pledged millions of dollars to build more schools following the model over the next four years.

The School of International Studies is one of six schools that make up San Diego High School’s educational complex. It’s the only school in the San Diego Unified School District with a Diploma Programme sanctioned by the International Bacclaureate organization. The School of International Studies ranked 22 on Newsweek’s Best American High Schools list and achieved an API score of 795.

Southwest High is one of the lowest- scoring schools in the county on state tests (API score 632). Roughly 40 percent of the students are from low-income households and are non- English speakers. Yet the school has a history of impressive championships in the academic decathlon. Led by teacher Ken Boulton, the school won seven of the 10 categories this year. It’s the school’s fourth consecutive championship.


Private High Schools: Ahead of the Curve?

AFTER NEWSWEEK PUBLISHED its list of America’s best high schools in May, the magazine was bombarded with questions and criticism regarding its methodology in rating schools. Numerous parents wrote asking why the list excluded private high schools. Why, they wondered, after paying tens of thousands of dollars to educate their children, weren’t their kids’ schools considered in the rankings?

Jay Mathews, the reporter who oversaw the ranking and authored the Newsweek story, responded by explaining that “private schools, sadly, have resisted this and most other attempts to quantify what they are doing so parents could compare one private school to another.”

Private school educators and administrators see it a little differently. “We don’t think any kind of ranking is in the best interest of the kids,” says Nancy Raley, vice president of communications at the National Association of Independent Schools. “These schools each have a different mission, pedagogical approach and focus; comparing them does a disservice to the schools, parents and children and encourages a destructive competitiveness.”

Walk onto any of the two dozen or so private high school campuses in San Diego County and you’ll get a sense of the unique, often highly specialized learning environment. It’s a source of pride for the schools—and their underlying reason for bowing out of rankings such as Newsweek’s. Still, wait lists at area private high schools continue to grow as an increasing number of parents consider alternatives to the local public school system.

There are a number of factors to be weighed in the case of private versus public. What size classroom best serves your child? How important is moral or religious instruction? What is the quality of public education in your school district? How well will your child be prepared for college? And then there’s the matter of cost. Ultimately, the decision to go private or public should be made with the student’s individual background and situation in mind. But San Diego’s private schools present a compelling case on a number of fronts.

Academic Reputation

Harvard. Princeton. Yale. The Bishop’s School in La Jolla (858-459-4021; bishops.com) is proud to have sent alumni to the most prestigious colleges in the country. It’s a big selling point to parents searching out private-school options. Founded in 1909, Bishop’s offers “a structured educational experience that combines the best classical college preparatory curriculum with the most modern educational technology and methods,” says Paul Slocombe, dean of academic studies. “The curriculum is designed to train students to think critically, to speak and write clearly and powerfully, and to bring their growing knowledge and skills to bear on problem-solving across all disciplines.”

Like most private high schools, Bishop’s has more rigorous graduation requirements than most public schools. Results from the National Assessment of Education Progress indicate privateschool students generally perform higher than their public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests. Comparing Bishop’s class of 2006’s SAT scores to last year’s national averages, Bishop’s students scored substantially higher on all three subjects (verbal/creative reading: Bishop’s, 664, national, 519; math: Bishop’s, 677, national, 537; writing: Bishop’s, 667, national, 516).

School and Class Size

Stuart Grauer worked with teens for 17 years in “most every learning environment” before he founded The Grauer School (760-944-6777; grauerschool .com) in Encinitas in 1991. A former tenured teacher for a public high school, Grauer found that environment to be neither inviting nor engaging for teenagers.

“When you have 1,000 kids on the same campus, they want to splinter off into groups; many kids came to me saying they didn’t feel they belonged,” he says. Proponents of the “small school movement”—of which Grauer is a leading voice—say keeping a school’s population below 200 minimizes peer pressure, reduces the presence of cliques, fosters a safe environment in which students are encouraged to take on new challenges, and boosts academic performance. Approximately 100 students (grades six through 12) attend The Grauer School, where the maximum class size is 12.

Research shows overwhelmingly that small schools lead to greater student academic gains and personal adjustment,” says Grauer.


Francis Parker School (858-569-7900; francisparker.org) upper school principal Patrick Mitchell says safety is a major reason parents turn to a private-school environment. “In a large public school, bullying is going to be a problem for some students,” says Mitchell. “There’s a certain level of trust at Francis Parker because it’s small and personal.” In his 15 years at the school, Mitchell says there have been only a few fights involving high school–age students. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder or deal with theft, and you don’t see graffiti,” he says.

Stuart Grauer of The Grauer School says “emotional safety” is just as important. The school’s recent “Grauerpalooza” event illustrates his point. “We had eight kids who had never before performed publicly get up and perform solo in front of the entire school,” he says. “That’s what I mean when I say a ‘safe place’—our students can really take chances and make discoveries about themselves.”

Special Programs

When Anna Clausner moved from Germany to San Diego with her family 10 years ago, she visited La Jolla Country Day School (858-453-3440; ljcds.org) and immediately knew it was a place where her three sons would thrive. Quality language and music programs were priorities, and in her survey of private and publica statue of Mother Mary schools, La Jolla Country Day made the best impression. “They offered the perfect combination of advanced-level language instruction and an unbelievable music program,” says Clausner.

From forensic science to filmmaking, European history to environmental science, the upper school curriculum offers a number of specialized courses. Private schools have the flexibility to create their own curriculum and special programs, which sometimes entails international travel and humanitarian work. “Whether they’re rebuilding homes in Tijuana, on an exchange trip to China or tutoring Sudanese refugees, students are encouraged to think big,” says Clausner.


According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the median annual tuition for private day schools (grades nine through 12) in the United States is nearly $17,000. While many families perceive private school as cost-prohibitive, many private institutions offer substantial financial assistance. The Bishop’s School tuition for the 2005-2006 school year totals $21,500. The school distributes $2.1 million annually in scholarship grants, which can range from a few thousand dollars to nearly full tuition. Bishop’s scholarships are based entirely on demonstrated financial need.

Francis Parker awards nearly $2 million to its students each school year. “A lot of people in the community don’t know they can apply for admission and receive financial aid,” says principal Patrick Mitchell. “It’s based strictly on need.” Having a diverse student body composed of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds is an expressed goal among the region’s private-school admissions representatives.


In a study of private schools in 1999- 2000, 79 percent were found to have a religious affiliation (30 percent were affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church; 49 percent with other religious groups). Next year, San Diego’s Academy of Our Lady of Peace (619-297-2266; aolp.org) celebrates 125 years as a Catholic secondary school for young women.

“We feel that leadership training for the different roles these young women will assume in adult life is incomplete without a spiritual dimension,” says assistant principal Sister Joyce Hampel. In addition to a rigorous college-preparation curriculum, religious education is an integral component.

The school also bases its curriculum on research findings that point to the benefits of an all-female learning environment. “The end goal is the same for boys and girls, but the process that girls use in thinking through a learning situation is unique,” says Hampel. “We teach them in a way they will best learn and be their most successful.”

                                                                                                             --Julia Beeson

Spelling It Out

What all those acronyms mean:

AP Advanced Placement
API Academic Performance Index
AVID Advancement Via Individual Determination
CIF California Interscholastic Federation
CSU California State University
IB International Baccalaureate
PTA Parent Teacher Association
PTSA Parent Teacher Student Association
SAT Scholastic Aptitude Test
UC University of California
VEEP Voluntary Ethnic Enrollment Program

Charter Schools: Public Schools with a Twist

Charter schools are on the rise. A primer, and a few notable examples.

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